Prime Minister (Questions and Statements)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 26th January 1967.

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3.30 p.m.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

I did not deal with points of order during the quarter of an hour of the Prime Minister's Questions because that would have taken away precious time. I am very willing to listen to points of order now. Did the Leader of the Opposition wish to raise one?

Photo of Mr Edward Heath Mr Edward Heath , Bexley

Gladly, Mr. Speaker, if you invite me to do so. It has now become evident that all except two minutes of Question Time today was taken up with the Prime Minister giving an account of his journey to Paris, which was invaluable to the House. May I now suggest, however, through you, Mr. Speaker, that it would be a great convenience if future Questions on such visits after the Prime Minister's return could be answered after Question Time. That would give us much greater opportunity of talking to the Prime Minister about these matters.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

Further to that point of order. I will, of course, consider the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion. There were, however, a great number of Questions which had been put down and I thought it right to answer them at Question Time. In fact, we would, I think, have been justified in withholding any information until all six visits had been completed and we could look at the situation as a whole. While we ourselves attach equal importance to all the six visits—to the other four as well as the two that we have made—it may be that there will be less interest in the House, as I am sure there will be in the Press, in some of the other visits compared with the one which has attracted so much attention this week.

If, however, there is a strong desire that we should have more time for Questions after subsequent visits—which would, of course, mean taking time away from something else—I will certainly consider whether that would be more convenient to the House.

Photo of Mr John Jennings Mr John Jennings , Burton

May I seek your further guidance, Mr. Speaker? It is perfectly obvious that on a matter of this importance, when Questions are grouped, no back-bencher other than those who have put down Questions can get the opportunity of asking supplementary questions. [HON. MEMBERS: "Wrong."] I take that as an ordinary supposition. Would it be possible on this occasion, Mr. Speaker, for the Prime Minister to make a further statement now, even if he were only to say, "I have no further statement to make", to allow back-benchers to put questions which are uppermost in their minds at the present moment?

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

We are considering a very important matter. If I may deal with the first point raised by the hon. Member, he will have noticed that when I called supplementary questions among those whom I called was somebody who did not have one of the Questions on the Order Paper. The Select Committee said that putting down a Question on the Order Paper did not give a prescriptive right to an hon. Member to be called.

The problem to which I am trying to address myself and on which I am seeking advice from the House is that the time allowed for Questions to the Prime Minister, which to some hon. Members are the two most important quarter-hours of the week, can be entirely monopolised by one issue if hon. Members put down a tremendous number of Questions on the same subject.

What I have suggested to the House this afternoon is that I might be allowed to call some supplementaries not only from hon. Members who have put down Questions, but from those who have not put down Questions, and then to move off that issue to other issues, because in the same quarter of an hour there are other questions which hon. Members want to put to the Prime Minister.

I remember an occasion, for instance, when Vietnam, which many hon. Members regarded as an important issue, remained on the Order Paper week after week because it was never reached since earlier Questions to later ones on the same topic had taken the whole of the time. I would want at some stage to move on to some other Question on the Order Paper. This was what I sought to do this afternoon.

Photo of Sir Arthur Harvey Sir Arthur Harvey , Macclesfield

Further to the point of order. The House has not been told anything further this afternoon, Mr. Speaker, than we were told on television at the Prime Minister's Press conference last night—

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. That is not a point of order. It is a point of criticism.

Photo of Sir Arthur Harvey Sir Arthur Harvey , Macclesfield

I am now coming to my point of order, Mr. Speaker. Surely, Parliament has a right to expect to be able to question the Prime Minister without a follow-on from Press conferences in Paris.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

That is not a matter for me. It is not a matter of order.

Photo of Mr Jon Rankin Mr Jon Rankin , Glasgow Govan

Would it not be better, Mr. Speaker, to leave this matter in your hands just now instead of the House rushing in to create precedents and make decisions for a matter which may not continue over long?

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

I think that the House will take note of that observation.

Photo of Sir Harmar Nicholls Sir Harmar Nicholls , Peterborough

Following the point of order raised by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, I gather, Mr. Speaker, that if the Prime Minister had conceded the request contained in that point of order by saying that he would willingly answer on these points after Question hour, that would have been acceptable to the Chair.

If that be the decision of the Chair, would the Chair bear in mind that in putting these Questions it is not only the value of the Prime Minister's Answer that is important, but the value of Parliament's view in the sort of questions which hon. Members put to him. Therefore, even if, for very good reasons, the Prime Minister cannot give a clear answer to the questions, at least some value comes out of the material contained in the questions that are asked.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

There is no question of what is acceptable to the Chair. The House is its own master, and Ministers make statements in the form they choose. The problem with which the House is confronted would, however, exist even if the Minister in question made a statement after Question Time when there were as many as 15 or 16 Questions on that topic on the Order Paper. Exactly the same problem of selection would arise.

Photo of Mr Patrick Wall Mr Patrick Wall , Haltemprice

May I ask you to clarify two points, Mr. Speaker? One is the very great difficulty which back-benchers have of putting down Questions to the Prime Minister which are likely to be answered. They have to be put down at least three weeks beforehand. The second is the difficulty of a backbencher who withdraws a Question to the Home Secretary, who was at the top of the list today, to get a Question to the Prime Minister and then is not called but somebody who appears later than him on the Order Paper is called. I appreciate the difficulty of the Chair, but may I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to appreciate the difficulty of back-benchers?

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

I appreciate that very real difficulty, which selection might help to overcome.

Photo of Sir Knox Cunningham Sir Knox Cunningham , South Antrim

May I ask your guidance, Mr. Speaker? Your predecessor in the Chair indicated that if a Question after Q10 was put down to the Prime Minister he would use his discretion about whether a supplementary question would be allowed. You have indicated today a different policy. I put down a Question Q2 and would have liked to ask a supplementary question. Could you explain the new policy, Mr. Speaker, and whether this is a change?

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

I hope that the House will never ask Mr. Speaker why he selects. If he is asked to select, the House must have confidence in him.

Photo of Sir Knox Cunningham Sir Knox Cunningham , South Antrim

Your predecessor indicated the policy, Mr. Speaker, and I am asking if you would indicate whether you are changing the policy of your predecessor?

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

I thought I had made quite clear the line I have suggested. I hope that it commends itself to the House. If it does not, then we must go back to the position we were in before this afternoon. I hope that we can move on.

Photo of Mr Angus Maude Mr Angus Maude , Stratford-on-Avon

Further to that point of order. May I respectfully submit that the suggestion you have dealt with does not quite meet the problem of backbenchers here? Surely it used to be the custom that when the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary undertook an important foreign visit a statement was made which would give back-benchers the opportunity to question him.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. That is not a point of order.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. Mr. Speaker has no power to compel a Minister to communicate information in the way the hon. Member wants.

Photo of Mr Angus Maude Mr Angus Maude , Stratford-on-Avon

No, but further to that point of order. If you, by your Ruling, make it possible or easier for this matter to be taken during Question Time it comes out of back-benchers' time instead of Government time which a Question being answered after Question Time does. This is the important point.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. When these visits were announced they were really regarded as one consecutive operation. Indeed, it could have been possible to have toured areas of Europe in one extended visit. One reason why it is being done in the way it is is so that, apart from the last two visits, I shall not be away from my place at Question Time to hear and answer Questions. The result is that this means six separate visits, and I intended, when I got back after the sixth, to make a more extended and full statement to the House.

We are taking some risks in view of the circumstances we have in mind by getting into so much questioning, and I have gone much further today than I did at the Press conference, as one would expect to do in this House. I have gone further in answering questions than I did at the Press conference in Paris. There are some difficulties about making statements about a visit to one particular country when other countries are to be visited. I have already given instructions today for there to be put in the Library of the House what was said at the Press conference so that hon. Members may see that I have not said more there than I have here.

Photo of Mr Edward Heath Mr Edward Heath , Bexley

May I ask whether we are clear in understanding that by your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, you are indicating that if the Prime Minister deals with a visit by answering Questions and a number of Questions are put down, a very large number of Questions, you yourself would like to call only a small number of supplementary questions so that we may move on to other Questions? If that is your suggestion, I should say that we on this side of the House would not find it satisfactory.

I also find it impossible to accept the Prime Minister's view that all six visits should be treated as one. This is not in accordance with the custom of the House in relation to visits by Prime Ministers and Foreign Secretaries on matters of such importance. It is not compatible with the dignity of the House that members of the Press and television interviewers should have opportunities of putting questions to the Prime Minister which we ourselves do not have in the House of Commons. [Interruption.] In view of what the Foreign Secretary is muttering under his breath, I should say that on every single occasion when I returned to this country from a negotiation overseas I made a statement after Questions and answered every question which was asked in the House.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Most of what the right hon. Gentleman has said is a matter between him and the Prime Minister—the political criticism, and so on. What I said at the beginning of this question had reference not to the visit by the Prime Minister but to Questions to the Prime Minister when a number of hon. Members were asking the same Question which could take the whole of Question Time allotted to Prime Minister's Questions and prevent other hon. Members who also wish to ask Questions of the Prime Minister from doing so and deprive them of the opportunity. If the House does not want that, I do not insist on it.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

Further to that point of order. I am sorry further to take the time of the House. Studying this list of Questions much earlier, I knew that it meant big problems to you, Mr. Speaker, and the House and for whoever is answering Questions, but the point to be made is that this does not arise out of individual visits. This has been a question which I have been facing, and I think it faced the right hon. Gentleman my predecessor for some time. It has very often happened that on a single question there are eight, 10 or 12 Questions, some of which are put down at the very last minute, perhaps in the hope of getting in supplementary questions and in identical and repetitive terms. This puts on me a problem of whether to group or not, and it puts more difficult responsibility on you, Mr. Speaker.

I was prepared, as I indicated this morning, if this was seen to be a difficulty to have discussions with hon. Members in all parts of the House and through the usual channels, but your statement this afternoon—and I do not think the right hon. Gentleman has hoisted this on board—suggested that you were following the views of the Select Committee on Procedure, 1965, and in so far as there has been a change it is because of that. Surely, if the House does not agree with the Report of the Select Committee on Procedure, 1965—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman was talking about difficulties when a large number of Questions are taken together and whether Mr. Speaker selects them or not. This has been one of the main problems. I am trying to suggest that Mr. Speaker has followed the advice of the Select Committee on Procedure, 1965. If that is not convenient to the House, it is quite intolerable that you should be taking criticism for this fact.

We are quite willing—[Interruption.] This happens almost every week; it has happened on Vietnam and many other Questions. I am only suggesting that if the House is not happy with what is suggested we would be happy to have talks with the right hon. Gentleman and any other right hon. Gentleman to see how this growing problem of getting more Questions put down at the last minute can be dealt with.

Photo of Mr Edward Heath Mr Edward Heath , Bexley

Further to that point of of order. May I make plain that we are not expressing any criticism of you, Mr. Speaker, for following the recommendation of the Select Committee on Procedure as regards a considerable number of Questions by hon. Members on a continuing subject, a matter with which the Select Committee was dealing. We are dealing specifically with the return of the Prime Minister from a visit abroad. There is no criticism of you, Mr. Speaker, but entirely of the Prime Minister for not maintaining the usual customs of the House.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. May I assure the House that I did not read anything that was said as criticism of Mr. Speaker. The House has been thinking aloud on a very difficult problem. Representations have come to me from both sides of the House on this. Perhaps the usual channels will have a look at it.